Having recently finished reading “Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead, I was absolutely pleased to learn that this book, in addition to having won the National Book Award, had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Indeed “Railroad” is that rare combination of artistry, passion and genius that makes it a book that can be simultaneously savored and devoured.
“Railroad” is a work of historical fiction that begins by chronicling the horrific banality of slavery in America. An America where torture, damnation and misery were the ordinary characteristics of the ordinary life of a black slave. From “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to “Twelve Years A Slave” to “Roots”, the slime of America’s Original Sin and its Lingering Stain has been told and retold, but America has neither fully accepted the reality of its origins or the absolute fact that the Shadow of Slavery dims the lights of freedom and decency which are supposed to illuminate this land. And that is why America needs to buy “Underground Railroad”.
That is because at some unknowable point this work fiction literally jumps the rails and becomes a work of fantasy woven into an unforgettable fable. But with every word and every page, Colson Whitehead never lets the reader forget that for black Americans in that era, slavery was a constant nightmare – a nightmare from which there was no awakening.
And it is the constancy of horror and fear and humiliation and abject surrender that accompanies the reader on every single page that forces the reader to understand that slavery was not simply a bad but best forgotten chapter in American’s history. “Railroad” has the potential to help every American understand that the institutionalized, regularized and humanized degradation of black Americans for centuries has deformed the character of this country to this very day. And the truth is that this deformity cannot be cured until it is recognized in the first place.
For those who would contend that the combination of the Emancipation Proclamation at the 13th Amendment to the Constitution freed and empowered the men and women who were formerly chattel, “Railroad” clarifies matters. For it is not possible for an entire nation to either enslave or countenance the enslavement of human beings for centuries and then proclaim and amend a new vision and a new day.
Because it is clear that the racial disparities that prevail in these United States 152 years after the end of the Civil War do not exist because of inferiority of black Americans or a lack of remediating strategies ranging from legislation to Supreme Court decisions to black capitalism to affirmative action. The disparities exist because the equality of black Americans is not a fully accepted fact – indeed it is still subject to dispute, particularly when that dispute is thinly veiled in sociological jargon.
Disparities in incarceration rates, mortality rates and unemployment are the strange fruit of the slavery vineyards that were planted centuries ago. The insults and venom that were leveled at the first African American president had little to do with politics and everything to do with his genetic condition to former chattel.
The mandatory reading of “Railroad” will allow all Americans, black and white, see in the book the very clear connection between the language, behavior and spirit of the overseer and the owner in the current political discourse. Because as has been seen in Germany and Bosnia and Armenia and now in Syria, if it is possible to deny the humanity of another human being, it is then possible to do anything and everything to that human being.
And that is why, in addition to the well-deserved accolades, every American should read “Underground Railroad” as a very important first step in finally finding a way to bury the past and to create a future that every American deserves.